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Visitor trails The Da Vinci Code, Between Fiction and Fact

Thematic trail - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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La Pyramide
La Pyramide

© Musée du Louvre / I. M. Pei / C. Trochu

00Introduction

Visit the Louvre in the footsteps of the heroes of the novel and the movie The Da Vinci Code, exploring the places, works, and themes at the heart of the story.

Forty years after the French television series Belphégor, the Musée du Louvre and its collections have once again become the setting for, and the protagonists in, a rich work of fiction following the publication in 2003 of the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and the release in 2006 of the movie, filmed in part in the museum’s galleries by the director Ron Howard. The trail that we have created for you provides an amusing tour of the museum in the footsteps of the “symbologist” Robert Langdon and the cryptologist Sophie Neveu, the main characters of The Da Vinci Code. Without taking sides either for or against The Da Vinci Code, we will evaluate some of the key themes and rectify some of the exaggerations. Although the selection of things to see in the trail will no doubt be obvious to those who have read the book or seen the movie, it should enable everyone to see the Louvre in a new and amusing light, providing both a historical and literary perspective.
The trail begins in the Hall Napoléon, which is located under the Pyramid. At the beginning of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon, like the museum’s seven million visitors each year, enters the Louvre through the Pyramid, which was inaugurated in 1989. The figure of 666 panes of glass given for the Pyramid is incorrect: it is the repetition of a rumor that was spread in the mid-1980s by people opposed to its construction, 666 being the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. In reality, the Pyramid is made up of 673 diamond-shaped and triangular panes of glass, excluding the doors.

 

How to get to the next stop:

From the Hall Napoléon, head for the Denon escalators. All the events relating to the Louvre in The Da Vinci Code take place in the Denon wing (named after Dominique-Vivant Denon, the museum’s first director between 1802 and 1815). Take the first escalator and turn left before the second escalator. Go up the staircase leading to the gallery of pre-Classical Greek art (room 1) and continue almost to the end of the room. You will see a large column statue.

Kore from the Cheramyes group
Kore from the Cheramyes group

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

01Kore from the Cheramyes group, known as the "Hera of Samos"

The highly novelistic theme of The Da Vinci Code is linked to the principle of the sacred feminine, or in other words, goddess worship. This was a key part of ancient religions which, according to the novel, Christianity during the early centuries of its existence set out to suppress by erasing the memory of Mary Magdalene. A brief visit to the Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities will reveal where the novelist’s idea came from. This statue carved by Cheramyes, whose dedication to the goddess Hera is engraved on the vertical edge of the cloak, is a famous example of a kore, a feminine votive statue. Sister and wife of Zeus and mother of, among other children, their son Ares, Hera exemplifies the concept of the sacred feminine which, as this statue demonstrates, was worshipped by the ancient religions. The large sanctuary on the island of Samos, where the work was situated, was claimed to be the site of the wedding between Zeus and Hera. Indeed, the ancients were not short on details when it came to the conjugal or amorous adventures of their gods and goddesses. Even though they were goddesses, Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Isis in Egypt, and Aphrodite in Greece nonetheless had private lives. The Da Vinci Code uses this idea as its starting point, audaciously transposing it to Christianity, making Mary Magdalene the secret companion of Jesus.

How to get to the next stop:

Take the staircase at the end of the room and turn left at the top of the steps. Turn left again and you will reach the foot of the staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Just before you reach this staircase, look down at the floor between the two small flights of steps: you will see an Arago medallion.

L'Escalier de la Victoire de Samothrace et le Médaillon Arago
L'Escalier de la Victoire de Samothrace et le Médaillon Arago

© Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier

02The staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Arago medallion

The views of the staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace are no doubt the most famous in the Louvre. Try and imagine what it is like here once all the rooms have been emptied of visitors and the doors have been closed for the night. In the half-light and the silence, the museum enters a kind of slumber that has for long haunted the lovers of mystery. The author of The Da Vinci Code, who makes extensive use of the nighttime setting of the Louvre, understood this very well. Mentioned at the end of the novel, the bronze medallions 12 centimeters in diameter are supposed to mark the inconspicuous “Rose Line,” which enables Langdon to intuit the presence of the grave of Mary Magdalene near the Louvre. This fictional interpretation transforms a geographical marker (the Paris meridian) into an esoteric symbol (the “Rose Line”). In reality, the Arago medallions, of which there are fifteen in and around the museum, are part of a contemporary work of art created in 1995 by the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets. In all, there are 135 Arago medallions in Paris, forming a north-south line that crosses the capital from the Porte de Montmartre to the Cité Universitaire, passing through the Observatoire on the exact path of the old universal meridian of Paris, which they commemorate. Embedded in the ground or in buildings, they are named after the astronomer and politician François Arago (1786–1853), who redefined the position of the Paris meridian in 1806, before it was replaced by the Greenwich meridian in 1884.

How to get to the next stop:

Go up the staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace and turn right when you reach the statue. Pass through two small rooms with columns and at the far end go through the doors leading to the Salon Carré (room 3).

Le Salon Carré
Le Salon Carré

© Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier

03The Salon Carré

In the 18th century, the Salon Carré, one of the most prestigious rooms in the museum, was used for temporary exhibitions of contemporary painting. It lent its name to the generic term of “Salon,” which has since become the word in France for a temporary exhibition or trade fair, such as the Salon du Livre, Salon de l’Agriculture, and Salon du Tourisme. It was also the first room in the Muséum Central des Arts (the first name of the Musée du Louvre) when it opened to the public in 1793. It was here that the paintings regarded at the time to be the most admirable works in its collections were displayed. In the novel and the movie The Da Vinci Code, the curator Jacques Saunière dies in the nearby Grande Galerie, yet the black star-shaped motifs that can be seen on the parquet around his body are only present at the Louvre in the Salon Carré, which was also where the killer, Silas, was standing. Between the two is a metal gate that Saunière had activated by tearing a painting by Caravaggio from the wall. If you look up at the doorframe separating the Salon Carré from the Grande Galerie, you can see that there is no gate at this precise spot (although there are some at other locations in the Louvre). Furthermore, Caravaggio’s paintings in the Louvre are actually located three quarters of the way down the Grande Galerie and not, as in the novel, 15 feet from this door. The author of The Da Vinci Code has, as so often in his book, altered the real topography for the purposes of his narrative.

How to get to the next stop:

Go out of the Salon Carré through the door leading to the Grande Galerie. Walk down the Grande Galerie as far as the second series of columns. Just after these columns you will see, on the left-hand wall, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. Stand in front of The Virgin of the Rocks.

The Virgin of the Rocks
The Virgin of the Rocks

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

04The Virgin of the Rocks

The spectacular Grande Galerie in the Louvre plays an important role in the novel The Da Vinci Code, providing the setting for the beginning of the story. Far more remarkable than the parquet flooring with its chevron patterns mentioned in the book is the collection of Italian paintings. Four of the five paintings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre are on display here. The Da Vinci Code analyzes The Virgin of the Rocks (which Sophie Neveu removes from the wall) in a new and subversive way. It suggests that Mary holds in her left hand the invisible head of Mary Magdalene, whose neck is being symbolically sliced by the gesture of the Archangel Uriel on the right. Leonardo was thus supposedly showing the Church’s conspiracy against Christ’s companion during the early centuries. This far-fetched interpretation of the painting might have been inspired by the work of Bernardino Luini just to the left: Salome Receiving the Head of Saint John the Baptist. In reality, Mary’s mysterious gesture relates to traditional religious iconography: Mary is the mother of Jesus, but she is also the incarnation of the Church, the “house.” In the painting, therefore, she seems to be covering the head of her Son with her left hand, as if with a roof. The Da Vinci Code thus transformed a gesture of protection into a metaphorical representation of murder. This powerful literary effect is a travesty of art history.

How to get to the next stop:

Take a few steps to the right and stand in front of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

© RMN (Musée du Louvre) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

05Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

This painting by Leonardo da Vinci is included in our trail because in 1910 it was the subject of an astonishing study by Sigmund Freud (“Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood”), who dared to discern in it motifs hidden from ordinary mortals. Freud saw in the Virgin Mary’s garment a bird of prey (a vulture) and interpreted it as an unconscious rediscovery by Leonardo of the myth of Mut, the vulture goddess of Egypt. This analysis, which has been controversial since the day it was published, opened up a new avenue in the history of pictures: that of their over-interpretation, something The Da Vinci Code makes unbridled use of. To see the famous “vulture,” you need to tilt your head 90 degrees to the left. You will then be able to make out, in the outline of Mary’s blue-green garment, the head and beak of a bird (on the left of the picture), its triangular body, and its two inert wings. In addition, the perfect composition of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is based in part on the use of an element described in The Da Vinci Code: the ratio of proportion “phi” (equal to 1.618), known to the Mesopotamians, the Roman architect Vitruvius, who called it the “golden number,” and the artists of antiquity. This “divine proportion,” although it is not the “fundamental building block in nature” as The Da Vinci Code proclaims, creates in the realm of the fine arts an unparalleled effect of balance and harmony.

How to get to the next stop:

Continue two-thirds of the way along the Grande Galerie. On your right you will see a corridor (where you will find the toilets in which Sophie Neveu hides in The Da Vinci Code) leading to the Mollien temporary exhibition rooms (rooms 9, 10, and 11). When you reach this point in the Grande Galerie, stand in front of Bronzino’s Noli Me Tangere, which is hanging on the left-hand wall.

Noli me tangere
Noli me tangere

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

06Noli Me Tangere

In The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene is described as being the victim of a conspiracy hatched by the Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325. In an attempt to denigrate her, she was supposedly stripped of her status as Jesus’ wife and reduced to the role of repentant prostitute, taking with her in her fall the concept of the sacred feminine. Bronzino’s painting shows that The Da Vinci Code, in its way, tapped into the ambiguous feelings that Mary Magdalene had produced in a number of artists down the centuries. Here, the painter represents the moment when Jesus Christ reveals his Resurrection to Mary Magdalene. The body triumphant of Christ and the ample forms of Mary create an erotic charge typical of Mannerism. As this painting suggests, with its choreography worthy of a nuptial parade, the scandalous impact of The Da Vinci Code, whose plot is based on the idea of the secret union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, might have had precedents in the imaginings of artists. Furthermore, theologians have demonstrated that Mary Magdalene, who is never named in the New Testament, is an amalgam of three different women: Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus), Mary of Magdala (Magdalene), and an anonymous sinner who appears three times in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Mary Magdalene has always been a figure shrouded in mystery, the subject of innumerable fantasies.

How to get to the next stop:

Continue along the Grande Galerie to the next set of columns. Just before the columns, the paintings of Caravaggio are displayed on the left-hand wall. Stand in front of The Death of the Virgin.

Death of the Virgin
Death of the Virgin

© 1993 RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda

07The Death of the Virgin

This is the Caravaggio painting that Saunière tears from the wall at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. The Louvre possesses three of his paintings: this one, the Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, and The Fortune Teller. The Death of the Virgin appears to contain a visual element that The Da Vinci Code mentions in connection with Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan, namely a scotoma. This is an ophthalmological term for a blind spot in the visual field. When applied to images, a scotoma refers to a detail the meaning of which cannot be seen but which becomes obvious when you are able to decipher it. According to The Da Vinci Code, a scotoma in The Last Supper is the figure of Mary Magdalene, whom Leonardo had placed to the right of Jesus, although for more than five centuries historians have in fact seen here the image of Saint John. More seriously, a probable scotoma in The Death of the Virgin is the large red drape in the top right of the canvas. This red drape is the same color as the dress of the dead Virgin. The two left-hand strips of the drape fall vertically toward her feet and the untied cord echoes that of her bodice. Drawn out of the picture frame, it could symbolize the disembodied body of Mary rising toward her Son during the Assumption. The convent that commissioned this painting from Caravaggio did not approve of this iconographic tour de force and rejected the work. They adjudged it to be irreverent on the grounds that it was vulgar and neglected the Assumption.

How to get to the next stop:

Retrace your steps in the Grande Galerie and enter the Salle des Etats on the left (room 6). Here you will find The Wedding Feast at Cana and the Mona Lisa.

The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Wedding Feast at Cana

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

08The Wedding Feast at Cana

This work by Veronese is the largest painting in the Louvre. Visitors sometimes confuse its subject with that of Leonardo’s Last Supper, painted on the wall of the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and which The Da Vinci Code deciphers after a fashion. The two works represent the two most famous meals of the New Testament: a wedding banquet marked by Jesus’ first miracle, in which he changes water into wine; and the last meal of Jesus and the Apostles. The Wedding Feast at Cana, which mixes the Gospel with Venetian high society of the 1560s, contains some surprising details. Why has the artist painted simplified motifs of wedding rings on the silvery tunic of the cupbearer on the right? Why was the head of the figure in black looking up near the middle of the right-hand table stuck to the canvas and not painted directly onto it? And why does the Virgin Mary, seated to the right of her son, seem to be holding an invisible glass in her right hand? Each of these questions could be answered in different ways, some true (the stuck on head is that of the successor of the person who was there before and who had just died) and others imaginary (Mary symbolically keeps the unattainable Holy Grail). There are as many possible avenues of interpretation as there are pictures. The author of The Da Vinci Code has chosen, as a novelist, to adopt imaginary interpretations in his descriptions of works of art.

How to get to the next stop:

Just opposite The Wedding Feast at Cana is the Mona Lisa (and not, as The Da Vinci Code states, a large painting by Botticelli).

<i>Portrait of Lisa Gherardini</i>, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the <i>Mona Lisa</i> (the <i>Joconde</i> in French)
<i>Portrait of Lisa Gherardini</i>, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the <i>Mona Lisa</i> (the <i>Joconde</i> in French)

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

09Mona Lisa

The renown of the most famous painting in the world has no doubt increased since the publication of The Da Vinci Code and the release of the film adaptation. Every day, thousands of visitors come to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa (Monna Lisa) in the flesh and to try and penetrate her disturbing mystery. Ever since the work was painted in 1504 by Leonardo da Vinci, kings and artists, historians and tourists, poets and thieves have projected their fantasies onto the supposed portrait of Madonna Elisabetta Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. All sorts of things have, are, and will be said about her. Ever since she was stolen on August 21, 1911 (she was found again in 1913), this icon of Renaissance art has come to embody the very idea of a museum work intended for universal contemplation. Do people come only to appreciate the sfumato? The Da Vinci Code, by attributing to her anagrams, oddities of composition, and knowing smiles, merely restates in its own way all the myths attached to it. The Mona Lisa traveled three times during the last century: in 1911, as mentioned, in 1963 (New York and Washington D.C.), and in 1974 (Tokyo and Moscow). Now forever Parisian, protected behind glass from the air, from flash photography, and from attacks, she smiles to remind us that she was once alive.

How to get to the next stop:

Leave the Salle des Etats via the door behind the Mona Lisa. You will arrive in one of the three salles rouges, or red rooms (room 78). Enter the large red room on the left (room 77) and go to the staircase at the end.

Les Salles Rouges et la Pyramide Inversée
Les Salles Rouges et la Pyramide Inversée

© Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier

10The salles rouges (red rooms) and the Inverted Pyramid

The three rooms in the Louvre where the works of the great French painters between 1780 and 1840 (David, Ingres, Géricault, Delacroix) are displayed were created by Napoleon III. Their décor, with its red walls, forms a striking contrast with the paintings in their gilt frames. The setting created for these works results in a spectacular explosion of color. The opening of the movie The Da Vinci Code is set here, with the curator Saunière running through the rooms, mortally wounded. At the end of the room there is a staircase with a landing occupied by a café. This is the part of the museum that is nearest to the place where The Da Vinci Code ends: the Inverted Pyramid, whose glass belly can be seen through the windows, in the middle of the Rond-Point. The Inverted Pyramid is located in the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground shopping mall inaugurated in 1993 that adjoins the Hall Napoléon of the Louvre. At the end of The Da Vinci Code, Langdon understands that the pyramidion of stone placed under the point of the Inverted Pyramid houses the grave of Mary Magdalene. This entirely fictional revelation has nevertheless ensured that the little monument has entered local legend and tourist folklore. But 1.2 kilometers from the Inverted Pyramid, in the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (the Madeleine), there is a reliquary containing the left thighbone of a woman aged around fifty, who died nearly twenty centuries ago. Of Mediterranean type, she was around 1 meter 58 centimeters tall . . .

How to get to the next stop:

Go down the staircase, cross the gallery of Italian sculptures (room 4) and take the escalators in the Salle du Manège (on the right, room A) to return to the Hall Napoléon under the Pyramid. From the circular information desk under the Pyramid, you can see a long gallery with stores leading to the Carrousel du Louvre. Go to the end of this gallery and you will reach the Inverted Pyramid. This is where The Da Vinci Code and our trail come to an end.